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Fidelio: A European import succeeds in Edmonton

Fidelio Edmonton Opera

Until this week, Alberta had never staged a production of Beethoven's only opera, Fidelio.

Why? It's not on the top-10 list of most performed operas, but Fidelio is staged regularly in Europe, and the Canadian Opera Company put it on in 2009. And there are timeless themes: Couched in a love story about a woman's determination to find her wrongfully imprisoned husband is also an exploration of political oppression – risky territory in the French-occupied Austria of Beethoven's day and still resonant.

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The Edmonton production also revealed one obvious truth about all opera: Offer excellent music and fine singing, and the audience will enjoy the show, no matter how implausible the plot or how dense with philosophy.

Directed by former Edmonton Opera artistic director Brian Deedrick, this production did an especially good job of the staging the crowd scenes. The Prisoners' Chorus at the end of Act I was particularly effective. The men relished the chance to uncover their inner wretchedness for the occasion.

As for the set, this production has a generically contemporary look: A utilitarian scaffolding arrangement with a walkway running above and across the stage provides the prison setting. Intermittently, a guard walks around to remind us that we're watching the drama of Leonore's husband, Florestan, who languishes in prison, a victim of the malicious warden Pizarro.

Maida Hundeling sings the role of Leonore, the convict's wife – who disguises herself as a man (Fidelio), so that she can infiltrate the jail and rescue her husband. An up-and-coming German soprano who made her Canadian debut this week, Hundeling has the power of a developing Wagnerian – in fact, she won a scholarship to train at Bayreuth. Her vocal strength made her well-suited to deliver the bravado of a woman capable of both connivance and courage.

Early in Act I, Hundeling sings with appropriate restraint, forced somewhat by the lower register Beethoven gives Leonore as she pretends to be Fidelio. But as Leonore comes closer to rescuing her woeful Florestan in the second act, every intense high-soprano note soared easily over the orchestra pit to the back wall, and the audience was delighted.

Canadian tenor John Mac Master plays Florestan – who only appears at the beginning of Act II, where he sings about the anguish of his captivity, then drifts like a madman into an alternately desperate, then joyful, tribute to his angelic Leonore. Mac Master sang nimbly and with conviction (even if the idea that such a big man had been living on bread and water for two years required us to imagine the effects of his austerities).

Edmonton tenor Robert Clark and French Canadian soprano Nathalie Paulin also delivered entertaining performances. Playing the rejected suitor Jaquino, Clark found a fine balance of theatricality and technically-refined singing. Paulin, making her Edmonton Opera debut, has a beautiful, unforced vocal quality, which served her well in the role of Marzelline, the chief jailer's daughter.

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Thomas Goerz, an Edmonton Opera regular usually in subsidiary roles, had a chance to control the plot line for extended periods this time, and he shone. He has a penetrating baritone, and he integrated his operatic skill comfortably into the utterly unheroic character of Rocco, Marzelline's father. In the role of the villain Pizarro, however, baritone Dean Elzinga did not have the same projective resonance as Goerz. Much of his singing is done in high dudgeon, calling for a certain kind of menacing effect, which Elzinga barely mustered.

The bottom line: The singers and the Edmonton Symphony (led by Robert Tweeten) handled the many different challenges of the difficult Beethoven score commendably. There really was no good reason to wait so long to bring Fidelio to Edmonton.

The final Edmonton Opera performance of Fidelio is on Thursday night.

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